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Unusual keyboard instruments featured in recital at Brockport - wins NYSBA Award

Woman sitting on tiny purple stool playing a toy piano
Max Schulte
Tamara Wilcox is presenting works by women composers on reproductions of rare historical key boards like the Pianoforte, English Bentside Spinet and Harpsichord. She's playing on one of the toy pianos she's collected over the years.

Congratulations to WXXI Classical’s Mona Seghatoleslami who won a New York State Broadcaster's Association award for a story titled: ‘Unusual keyboard instruments featured in recital at Brockport’ a story that brings to light the sounds and sights of unusual keyboard instruments, including the harpsichord, spinet, and the toy piano. Read about and listen to Mona’s story:

While Tamara Wilcox has been playing piano most of her life, it’s only recently that she has been exploring the world of some of the piano’s unusual relatives: keyboard instruments that are a mix of distant ancestors and unusual cousins, including the harpsichord, spinet, and the toy piano.

The toy piano has been featured in classical compositions going back at least to the 1940s, including a suite by John Cage. It has been championed by professional musicians, most notably Margaret Leng Tan, who is known as the “queen of the toy piano.”

Wilcox first got curious about the toy piano when she heard about a competition to write a 100-note composition for the instrument.

She recalls thinking “why not?” and found a toy piano to purchase through Facebook marketplace. Her toy piano composition was one of the winners for the competition, and she continued to explore the instrument, including acquiring a few more for her collection.

“They can’t be perfectly in tune, so it’s more of a percussive feel, but very fun,” she says, and notes that, “each has its own unique voice.”

She plays across three toy pianos in a piece called “The Nobility of Homophones,” by contemporary composer Olivia Kieffer.

Toy pianos are stacked next to Tamara Wilcox, who is reading from a composition book
Max Schulte
Tamara Wilcox reviews compositions, surrounded by her toy pianos.

Wilcox teaches and plays keyboard instruments at SUNY Brockport, where she is on the faculty of the Department of Theater and Music Studies. She has been combining her exploration of these instruments another of her interests: researching, teaching, and playing the work of women composers. On her upcoming recital, Wilcox will feature the work of a historic and a contemporary woman on each of the instruments.

The toy piano is just one of the unusual keyboard instruments Wilcox has been playing. There is the English Bentside Spinet, built decades ago by Brockport student Glenn Corson, based on an instrument from the 17th century.

SUNY Brockport used to have a Keyboard Technology Department, where you could learn tuning, building, [and] restoration. That was before Wilcox’s time, but she described it as “quite a place,” where they had “keyboard festivals that brought people...internationally with their historic keyboards.”

Tamara Wilcox plays a reproduction vintage harpsichord
Max Schulte
Tamara Wilcox plays one of the reproduction vintage instruments in Brockport's collection.

Corson’s family donated the instrument he built after his death. Two of the other instruments that Wilcox has been playing were built down the road from Brockport, in Bergen, at the Piano and Harpsichord Shop run by the late John O’Connor, Sr. His family has been building and maintaining keyboard instruments for several generations.

Brockport Professor Emertus Ian Henderson donated his O’Connor “Neo-Classic Fortepiano” and a harpsichord to the school.

Hands crossed over a reproduction vintage keyboard for a historical instrument
Max Schulte
One of the rare keyboard instruments donated to Brockport, and hand made in the Rochester area.

The fortepiano is a bit more mellow than the modern piano, with less dynamic range says Wilcox. It's this type of instrument that composers including Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin would have played during their lives.

The fortepiano and piano make sound when the keys cause hammers to strike the strings. In the case of the the harpsichord and the spinet, the keys cause the strings to be plucked instead.

"If you think of how a guitar player plays or a harpist,” she explains, “the strings are plucked with actually a kind of little beak that is called a plectrum. We today use Delrin plastic, but long ago they would have used anything from leather to feather quills, anything that’s hard enough to pluck the string. The different materials will give you a different timbre.”

With each of these instruments, she says there is a “dramatic difference” in the ways it feels to press the keys and in how they respond.

The instruments are all also “temperamental, and very sensitive to humidity and temperature,” she says. They normally live in a humidity-controlled room, created especially for their storage at the college, but they are now for the upcoming recital.

Tamara Wilcox will play these instruments in a concert called “Women and Keyboards,” Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the Tower Fine Arts Center in Brockport.

Mona Seghatoleslami is the host and producer on WXXI Classical 91.5 FM weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. She also hosts the lunchtime concert series Live From Hochstein at 12:10 p.m. Wednesdays, interviews musicians, produces special programs, and works on any project she can find that helps connect people and music in our community through WXXI.
Max Schulte is responsible for creating video and photo elements for WXXI News and its digital spaces. He also assists with news and public affairs coverage, digital-first video content, and studio productions.